Dear Readers: Do you make the same New Year's resolutions year after year? When it comes to financial resolutions, that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, each year can present financial challenges and changes that require you to take a fresh look at your finances and make sure you're still on target to meet your goals. So whether you feel you're on fairly solid economic ground or you know you need to be more disciplined, here's my top 10 list of financial resolutions. Check off the ones you've completed, recommit to those you still need to keep and resolve to make 2014 your soundest financial year yet.
1. Get your financial bearings. Start the new year by either creating or updating your personal "net worth" statement. Write down the value of everything you own -- savings and investment accounts, car, home, business interests and personal property. Then list all your debts -- mortgage, car loan, credit card balances and student loans. Subtract what you owe from what you own to get your net worth. This gives you the big picture from which you can plan your next steps. It also provides a baseline so you can monitor your progress throughout the year.
2. Develop and stick to a budget. Budgets are only as good as your ability to stick to them. So commit to taking a realistic look at how you spend your money. Itemize your monthly expenses (both essential and discretionary) and subtract them from your income. If you need to cut back, prioritize your spending. Make savings a part of your budget!
3. Get organized. A simple, easily accessible filing system can make every other resolution easier to keep. First, set up either paper or electronic files for your financial and tax records, putting all your important documents (birth certificates, passports, Social Security cards, loan documents, insurance policies) in a secure place. Also put important financial dates on your calendar, like estimated taxes and property taxes. If you're retired or at least 70 1/2, you'll also want to mark required minimum distributions.
4. Set goals. Not hitting your financial goals? Maybe you need a fresh approach. First, make sure your goals are concrete and achievable. Are you saving for a down payment on a home? A kitchen remodel? A special vacation? Write down all your goals and put a pricetag on each. Then prioritize and create a realistic timeline. You may have to crunch numbers and make tradeoffs, but with specific and measurable goals in front of you, it will be easier to find ways to achieve them.
5. Control debt. If you completed the first resolution, you know what you owe. Now decide how to handle it. Not all debt is bad (for instance, a mortgage), but paying late fees and interest on credit cards can easily undermine your financial plans. Ideally, no more than 28 percent of pre-tax income should go toward home debt; no more than 36 percent should go toward all debt (home, car, credit cards, etc.). Systematically pay down credit card balances by focusing on higher-interest cards first. Charge only what you can pay off each month. And stay on top of student loans.
6. Build an emergency fund. In case of a job loss or illness, strive to keep enough cash to cover expenses for three to six months in an easily accessible account. And don't touch the money unless you absolutely have to!
7. Save for retirement. Pay yourself first by contributing to a 401(k) or other employer retirement plan -- at least enough to capture a company match. Then keep adding to your 401(k) until you hit the max. You might also consider funding an IRA. Set a retirement goal and check your progress each year.
8. Refine your asset allocation. Market ups and downs can throw your portfolio out of sync with your target mix of stocks, bonds and other investment classes. With 2013 having been such a good year for the stock market, you may now be overweighted in stocks. Check to see if your portfolio still reflects your goals and feelings about risk, and buy and sell investments to bring it back in line if necessary.
9. Review insurance coverage. Make sure you have essentials like health, car and homeowners or renters insurance, and that your coverage is appropriate for your needs. For example, you might consider purchasing an umbrella policy or disability insurance. Look into life insurance if you have dependents. Premiums can vary widely by company and by the terms you select, so do some comparison-shopping.
10. Create /review your estate plan. If you don't have an estate plan, make this the year for it. At the very least, set up a will and complete an advance health care directive. Review beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts and insurance policies -- especially if you've had a life change, such as a new baby, marriage or divorce. Lastly, throughout the year, resolve to take money out of the closet. Include your spouse in your plans and decisions and make sure that he or she understands the big picture. Share your financial know-how with your children or other family members. Together, you can build the financial strength to face the future with confidence.
Here's to a happy and financially rewarding new year!
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of the forthcoming book, "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty," available in bookstores in April 2014. You can e-mail Carrie at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2014 CHARLES SCHWAB & CO., INC. MEMBER SIPC. DIST BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.